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Ed.L.D. Students Visit Model Systems

By Mark Robertson on October 26, 2011 11:23 AM

El-Erian Fellow Nancy Gutierrez (R) meets with Finnish teachers

Over January Term, groups of Ed.L.D. students traveled to locations across the world — Finland, Ontario, San Jose (Calif.), Shanghai and Hong Kong, and Denver — for up-close views of highly-effective school systems. During the visits, they toured schools, sat in on classes, and met with system-level leaders to learn more about the strategies behind the successes.

Ed.L.D. faculty director, Professor Richard Elmore, explains that the idea for the visits came out of in-class explorations of systems that were excelling in terms of student performance.

“Over first semester, we explored leading examples of school reform and building effective educational systems,” Elmore says. “We decided together that seeing these systems in person would be invaluable.”

With funding help from the program, students made travel arrangements and utilized faculty contacts to set up appointments. Hayes/Stern Fellow Maren Oberman jumped at the chance to visit Finland, about whose world-renowned education system she and her classmates had read extensively.

“It was clear to us that there was a lot to learn from Finland,” Oberman says. “I’m particularly interested in its preparation and professional treatment of teachers.”

Oberman and four others spent a week in and around Helsinki. They visited three schools, including a high school teacher training site, and met with representatives from the education ministry and the U.S. embassy.

Oberman says her group hoped to discover what U.S. systems could learn from Finland — a relatively small and homogenous country. The equity they found between schools and within them was one takeaway.

“All Finnish schools have the same resources and provide the same social services for all students,” Oberman explains. “As a result, some of the social inequities that do exist don’t take on the role or meaning that they do here.”

Students also observed a deep commitment to the teaching profession, something that Finnish teachers attribute to the quality of their five-year training program and to the time they spend together each day to develop lessons and discuss student progress.

Broad Foundation Fellow Diane Robinson and three colleagues chose to visit Shanghai and Hong Kong on the heels of the cities’ school systems’ world-leading results on the most recent Programme for International Assessment (PISA) exam. In each city, the group met with ministers of education, principals,teachers, parents, and students, and saw a range of public schools, from the prestigious to those that served low-income students.

For Robinson, there were numerous takeaways, including the impact of the national culture’s support of education and the benefits and challenges presented by an exam-driven system.

“The national examination encourages high standards and clear expectations,” Robinson says. “However, some were concerned it does not require enough higher-level thinking and puts excessive pressure on students.”

Robinson also learned about how China manages its education system at scale and found significant differences in the implementation of education reforms in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Whereas Shanghai approaches them in an organized way as part of larger government reforms, Hong Kong leaves the process of reform to the schools. Still, in both cases, students observed a keen focus on learning outcomes.

“Right now, I think both systems are trying to figure out what outcomes are most important, but overall, it appeared [to our group that] both cities are spending a lot of effort in engaging students in genuine or authentic learning,” Robinson says.

Upon returning to Cambridge, students gathered to hear each group present the major lessons it took away from its visits.

“Students laid out what they learned and its relevance to what we had spent the semester learning,” Elmore says. “It was one of the most interesting sessions of the year.”